The Story of Mary and Martha

One of the most important stories found in the Bible is that of Mary and Martha – this is an important tale that tells us a lot about priorities, and is a story that has been the subject of a great deal of discussion and debate amongst Christians and theological scholars.

Understanding this story, and the significance of the characters and the tale as a whole is important in helping us to gain a richer, more comprehensive understanding of the Bible.

What Is The Story of Mary and Martha?

Before we take a closer examination and analysis of just why this tale is so important, it is worth looking at the contents of the story itself.

The narrative is contained in two areas of the Bible – John 12:2, and Luke 10:38-42, and describes the story of Mary and Martha, sisters of the famous figure Lazurus, who gained notoriety after he was raised from the dead by Jesus. All three siblings were said to be close friends and companions of Jesus, and all resided in a town called Bethany, located around two miles outside Jerusalem. 

Jesus and his disciples visited Bethany and called in at the home of Mary, Martha, and Lazarus. Here, the three siblings reacted in different ways to the visit – Mary immediately moved to sit at the feet of Jesus and prepared herself to listen intently to the words that he was speaking.

Martha, on the other hand, was distracted, and rushing frantically about the kitchen, trying to prepare and serve the meal for her family She grew frustrated by Mary, and scolded Jesus, asking him whether he was angry that she had been left to prepare and serve the meal alone, while her sister was distracted.

Martha then asked Jesus to order Mary to help and assist her, and Jesus responded; “Martha, you are worried and concerned about many things – but only one thing is truly needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and I will not take this away from her.”

As we can see, there is an emphasis in the story of focusing on the words of Jesus, rather than being distracted by extraneous details. Despite the apparent simplicity, this is a story that has caused a great deal of confusion and discussion.

Where Does The Story Take Place?

It is worth spending a little time considering the location and setting of the story, as this plays a part in the behavior and choices of the characters involved. Parallels with John 11-12 suggest that the location is a village often identified as Bethany, but this has been disputed by a number of scholars.

Meyer’s commentary on the New Testament refers to the fact that Luke 10 is set solely in Galilee, and this means that we cannot set the story in a definitive location. He does acquiesce, however, that Luke may have transposed the incidents of the tale from its original location in Bethany, to another village.

Ultimately, the most important element to note here is that the location is less important than the societal norms and requirements that the women were encountering on a daily basis – and we will explore this in greater detail when we consider the characters of Mary and Martha.

The Role of The Sisters In The Bible

In order to gain a better understanding of the issues and confusions surrounding the story of Mary and Martha, it is helpful to have a better understanding of the role each sister plays in the wider context of the Bible – this helps us to appreciate why they make the decisions and comments that they do.

What Was Martha’s Role In the Bible?

Martha is what would likely now be described as a homemaker, and this was a role that was typical during this historical period. It may seem strange from our modern perspective, but the status of women in ancient Jewish or ancient Roman societies was somewhat limited.

As a rule, women were treated poorly, with limited educational opportunities, no opportunities for an apprenticeship, and little chance of religious training. The number of women in professional roles was extremely limited – there is a reason that the purple cloth seller, Lydia, is often cited as an exception – her home in a prosperous Greek city thrived on a cosmopolitan vibe, and this included offering greater power to women.

Women in Martha’s world, however, were largely disempowered. The majority relied on their families, and later their husbands, in order to get by in daily life. This is a key element in the story of the Samaritan woman at the well, who is known for having five husbands – this was not so uncommon in a world where women could be divorced for not producing children, and death and disease were far more prevalent than in our modern world.

In this society, women were judged and valued for being good wives, and this focused on keeping the house neat and tidy, bearing children, and serving their husbands. With this context in mind, it is hardly surprising that the first instinct of Martha was to keep house, take care of the dinner, and serve her guests.

This role – of the perfect host, good cook, and amazing housekeeper – was fundamental not only to her role in society but to her very existence. Her value and status depended on her ability to keep house, and so it is only natural that this would be her number one priority – especially when a visitor as prestigious as Jesus was present.

We can also gain a greater insight into Martha’s story by considering the tale of the resurrection of Lazarus and here, Martha takes the role of the practical, pragmatic sister. In this story, Jesus arrives at the home of the sisters several days after the death of Lazarus, and they tell him that had he been present, Lazarus would not have died. Jesus assures them that Lazarus will soon rise again, and Martha is unsurprised.

She states that she knows that Lazarus will rise in the Resurrection on the last day. When Jesus asks if Martha believes in the Resurrection, she affirms that she does, but it soon becomes clear that she is considering the long-term Resurrection, suggesting that she is pragmatic and able to see the bigger picture. 

This explains her behavior in the story and also suggests that she can be so busy seeing the bigger picture, that it is easy for her to miss focusing on what is really important – while getting the meal prepared and served is important, her attention to this practical task means that she misses out on a more important task – hearing Jesus.

What Was Mary’s Role In The Bible?

Mary’s role in the Bible is also partially explained by the society in which the two women were living, and particularly when we focus on the lack of access to education that was offered to women in this period.

Any education that was received would have occurred primarily in-house, usually from brothers who had learned things at school and passed the information onto their sisters and the women at home.

Understanding this context is important for understanding just how significant it was for Mary to sit at the feet of Jesus. In this society, the idea of a woman sitting directly at the feet of a religious teacher would have seemed completely inappropriate, and, in many cases, even blasphemous.

Her action, therefore, demonstrates how hungry she was for the teachings of Christ, and how unapologetic she was about this – she was directly ignoring the expectations placed upon her by society, as we saw earlier, in order to listen to Jesus directly, and hear his truth,

Mary also plays an important role in the bible when she anoints Jesus – this is another clear example of her bold, forthright behavior, and a refusal to conform to the accepted feminine roles in her society.

Perfume is expensive, and the anointing of another’s body is an incredibly personal act – this action demonstrates the level of devotion that Mary has to Jesus. She is more focused on showing her devotion to God than she is worried about what others think of her – and this is demonstrated in her total devotion to Jesus when he visits the house.

Why Did Jesus Rebuke Martha?

Gaining a clearer understanding of the world in which Mary and Martha were living is useful in helping us to gain an insight into their motivations and reasons for their action in the story. It may seem confusing, therefore, to learn of Jesus’s reaction, and his criticism of Martha – surely he would have been aware of the restrictions and limitations of the society that she was living in, and her required dedication to her allocated role.

Despite this knowledge, he rebukes her for choosing to prepare the meal and take care of the house, rather than listening to him.

In order to unpick this, we need to first understand that there are no heroes and villains in the story – it is all too easy to allocate the “villain” role to Martha, and the “good” role to Mary. This act, however, is trying to oversimplify a more complex issue.

Martha’s actions were not, in themselves, villainous. As we have seen, she was trying to be hospitable, and serve her guests in the best way that she knew how – and there is no denying that hospitality and being a good host are key elements in the Bible.

There are a number of passages that help to clarify this, including Romans 12:6-8, which describes service as a spiritual gift, and Peter 4:9-10, which describes hospitality in the same way. This tells us, therefore, that the issue with Martha’s actions was not that she was disobeying God, or doing something that is not valued by God. The real problem lies elsewhere.

According to the text, Martha was “distracted” from sitting to listen to Jesus. The use of this term suggests that she had previously been invited to sit at his feet, but had instead chosen to divert her attention elsewhere – namely to the meal that she was preparing.

It makes sense, therefore, that Jesus would focus his criticism on Martha being upset by a number of things, and failing to understand which one should be her priority. This notion of priorities occurs again when Martha asks Jesus about the fairness of Mary not helping her with the housework – essentially, she is asking about Mary’s priorities.

At that moment, Martha is asking Jesus about the priorities, and what is most important at that time – is it helping to prepare the meal and keep the house, ensuring that Jesus is well cared for in their role as a guest, or is it about learning from Jesus?

The response from Jesus is that her priority should be on learning from him and that there is a time and a place for everything – this is a lesson also emphasized in Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. Rather than rebuking her for disobedience, he is reminding her that there is a time and place for hospitality, and there is a time and a place for learning.

The message is to focus on the right priorities at the right time, and, in this case, the right priority was to listen and learn from Jesus.

What Can We Learn From The Story of Mary and Martha?

Ultimately, the moral of the story is that you need to learn to prioritize the right things – namely, following the teachings of Jesus. In our modern lives, we do this through prayer, through the study of the Bible, and through visiting Church. At the same time, however, Jesus teaches us about the importance of balance and encourages us not to see Martha in a negative light.

Consider, for a moment, the size of Jesus’s party – he was likely traveling with all twelve of his apostles, as well as women who would have been supporting the ministry of Jesus. As a result, the meal that Martha was trying to prepare would not have been a small thing, and it is only natural that she would have been anxious about getting everything right and pleasing her guests – especially given that she was hosting Jesus himself.

She deserved credit for her amazing efforts, and it should be noted that she was a remarkable woman, as the eldest of the family, and head of the sibling household. In her society, having a woman managing her own affairs, and acting as head of the household, was an unusual situation, and one only exacerbated by her act of inviting a man into her home, even if that man was the son of God.

She welcomed Jesus and his party without hesitation or reservation, demonstrating the warmth, generosity, and hospitality that is such a key element of the Christian faith.

The secret, therefore, is to emulate a blend of both sisters in our daily lives. In some cases, it is appropriate to emulate Martha, and extend warm, generous hospitality to visitors into our home, as well as those that we meet in our daily lives – to ignore the plight of the needy in favor of our own spiritual education and growth is not an example of honoring Jesus – Jesus’s criticism of Martha was for being upset and worried, and he never chastised her for serving.

At the same time, however, we must take care not to allow our life of service to take us too far from listening to Jesus and spending time studying and learning from him. Sitting at the feet of Jesus must always take priority – any good works that we do in our life should flow from a life that is centered around Jesus.

Good works alone do not produce a life that is centered around Christ; we must put him first, learn from him, and only then will we have the power and ability to truly serve others in the best and most useful way.

Ultimately, there are a few important lessons that we can learn from the sisters, and taking these into our hearts is an important element of undertaking our journey to bring us closer to Christ.

Extend Hospitality

Extending our hospitality to serve others is a key element of serving Jesus, as we have seen from the story – once again, Jesus’s rebuke of Mary was never for the service that she was providing. This is a lesson that we can all bring into our own lives, and this coincides with the sin of pride.

How often have you been reluctant to let someone into your home because the carpets need hoovering, the toilet is not looking its best, or the kitchen counter is covered in crumbs? This is your signal to let these things go.

True hospitality in the Christian sense is to see the chance to welcome others into your home as a true gift, and one that you should share regardless of the state of your home.

The state of the laundry pile or the grime in the oven is not what is important; don’t turn someone away because their shoes are dirty and their dog is traipsing mud. Instead, open your heart and your home to everyone around you, and watch your friendships blossom and grow.

Comparison Is Not Your Friend

Another important element to take away from the story is the anxiety and discontent that Martha is experiencing – primarily because she is busy comparing her life to that of those around her.

As Mary sits peacefully at Jesus’s feet, Martha is rushing around, trying to create the perfect dinner and be the perfect host to her guests – and she is trying to do all of this solo. As she dashes about across the kitchen and through the home, she sees the group in the main room, relaxing and enjoying the word of Christ – and this is the point at which she starts to feel resentful and discontented.

She wonders why she is being treated this way, wondering how her sister cannot see how she is struggling and feels frustrated and angry – and all because she is comparing her current situation to that of her sister.

This is something that we are all guilty of – especially in a world that is dominated by social media. We are all programmed to compare ourselves, our homes, our lives, our appearance, our successes, and our failures, to those who are around us.

Picture the scene: you show up to a dinner at a romantic restaurant, wearing your favorite dress, and surrounded by those you love. As you sit down, your attention is caught by the conversation taking place at the table next to you – the woman beside you is talking about the payrise that she enjoyed at work or the new upgrade to her vehicle that she has just invested in.

Opposite her sit three well-behaved, adorable children, and from the outside, all you can see is the perceived perfect family. Immediately, you start to feel inferior about yourself – why aren’t your children that well behaved? Do you not deserve a pay rise? Why is your house not as large and fancy as hers?

Discontentment starts to fester, and this is only exacerbated when you pick up your phone and start flicking through social media. Instantly, you are confronted with hundreds of images, each of which depicts the “perfect life”, and your wonderful evening suddenly feels drab and tired. The most important thing to remember, however, is that none of this is real.

A snapshot on social media will never give you the full story about a situation and will have been carefully selected and curated to portray a seemingly perfect life. You will catch sight of a single moment, and miss the true story of the situation.

No two stories are identical; we all have our own battles to fight and our own demons to slay. Remember, comparing yourself to someone else will not change your situation or that of the person you envy – the only result it will have will be to steal away a piece of your joy.

Ask For Help

When Martha is overwhelmed by her jobs and responsibilities, she wastes no time in going to the person she knows has the power to fix things: the highest authority in her home. She asks Jesus for advice, and this is a good lesson for all of us.

By knowing who can help us, we can enjoy instant, useful solutions, and ensure that our issues are resolved sooner rather than later. It can be tempting, when we have an issue, to share our problem with everyone we know – even if they have no power to help.

By going straight to the highest authority, however, we reduce our stress and target our questions and concerns towards a person who can actually do something to help, saving valuable time and effort.

Talk To Jesus

We have mentioned that Jesus’s rebuttal of Martha does not focus on her words, but on her priorities – and this is an important message. He accepts her angry words and hurt feelings, and listens to her without judgment or any sense of superiority – and he is here to do the same for you.

You can talk to Jesus at any time, and about any issue that you need to – he will never be too busy or take offense; you will never interrupt a conversation or be in the way. And, most importantly, you never have to censor your words and emotions – you can tell Jesus exactly how you are feeling, and he will always be patient, loving, approachable, and happy to listen to your concerns.

Jesus Is The Path To Peace

Perhaps the most important message that we can take from the story is to prioritize Jesus as our route to peace. When Martha is concerned about “many things”, Jesus tells her that though many things are needed, her sister has chosen the right path – that is, listening to him. In this, he reminds Martha, and, in turn, all of us, that he should be our main focus and our top priority – and if this is the case, we will find peace in our everyday lives.

Final Thoughts

Though the story of Mary and Martha may, at first sight, appear to be a little convoluted and confusing, the message is clear when we meditate and study the finer details.

As we study and consider the passage, there are questions and concerns that we can all reflect on and consider – are we like Martha, and worrying anxious about many things, or are we like Mary, and focusing in on listening to the words of Jesus, and spending time listening to and learning from him?

Are we placing our commitment and devotion to Jesus first, before anything else, or are we focusing on doing good works and living a life of service? Ultimately, this is a story that can help us to get our own priorities in order, and ensure that we are placing God at the heart of everything we do.

Robert Merchfield
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